Suspended sentence for son who helped mother, 99, commit suicide

Lady Justice (Picture: Twitter/@danvelton). (Lady Justice (Picture: Twitter/@danvelton))

The court in Den Bosch found 76-year-old Albert Heringa guilty of assisting his 99-year-old mother in committing suicide and gave him a conditionally suspended prison sentence of six months. The sentence is three months higher than what the Public Prosecutor demanded. This was the fourth time this case appeared in court, NOS reports.

On June 7th, 2008 Heringa mixed 130 pills into his 99-year-old mother's custard. She ate it, drank a Martini and died peacefully. Everything was done at his mother's express request and Heringa helped his mother because she no longer wanted to live, he always said. The case received a great deal of public attention, because Heringa filmed everything and it was made into a documentary a year and a half after his mother's death.

When Heringa was first tried in 2013, the court in Zutphen found him guilty of assisted suicide, but imposed no punishment. The Public Prosecutor appealed. In 2015 the Arnhem court of appeal acquitted him completely. The court found that Heringa rightly invoked a state of emergency, a form of force majeure, because the doctor refused to help. He felt morally obliged to help his mother have a painless, dignified death she wanted. According to the court, Heringa acted very carefully and transparently 

The Public Prosecutor did not agree with this ruling, and filed cassation with the Supreme Court. A year later, the Advocate General of the Supreme Court recommended that the cassation be rejected because of force majeure. But the Supreme Court referred the case back to the court of appeal, now in Den Bosch. In December last year, the Public Prosecutor acknowledged that Heringa's motives were pure, but added that only doctors are allowed to assist with suicides. The Prosecutor demanded a three month suspended prison sentence against him.

The court in Den Bosch now ruled that Heringa is guilty of assisted suicide, and could not invoke force majeure. The court counted against Heringa that he left his mother alone after she had taken the deadly mixture, and that he did not immediately report what happened. 

Heringa himself is disappointed about the verdict, but told the court that ten years later he still does not regret what he did, because otherwise he would have felt that he betrayed his mother.

The Dutch association for a voluntary end of life NVVE is "enormously disappointed and bewildered", according to NOS. The association believes Heringa had no choice but to help his mother and his help should not be called a crime. The NVVE will continue to support Heringa if his legal battle continues.

The practice of assisted suicide in the Netherlands changed considerably in the years since Heringa's mother died. In 2011 doctors' association KNMG acknowledged that loneliness and an accumulation of old-age complaints can also cause hopeless and unbearable suffering, thereby no longer only allowing assisted suicide for people with a serious physical condition. If these rules were already in force in 2008, Heringa may have been able to find a doctor willing to help his mother with euthanasia.